The breadth of sounds you have access to with virtual instruments is enormous. Learn how to make your MIDI sounds “real” using velocity automation, articulations, modulation, re-amping and FX.
By Charles Hoffman
Virtual instrument plugins allow you to add drums, piano, bass, guitar, woodwinds, brass sections, and almost any instrument you can imagine, to your musical compositions. A quality MIDI instrument will provide you with a detailed level of control over its parameters via an easy-to-use user interface. While virtual instruments are efficient, practical and sound great, there’s sometimes a lack of “life” and “realness” present when trying to make them pop in the mix, in the way that a dynamic performance of an acoustic instrument would provide. In this piece, we’ll walk through 5 tips to make virtual instruments sound a little more real.
In addition to providing access to instruments you don’t have, virtual instruments can allow you to sufficiently compensate for poor studio recordings, saving you time and money. Whether your client is ok with replacing a real recording with a virtual instrument can depend on the quality of the replacement you’re able to produce. You need to strike a balance between perfection and human error. By default, many virtual instruments can sound quite perfect, often missing the human element straight out of the box. Intentionally adding imperfections and randomization to your virtual instruments can overcome this.
1. Automate Velocity
Velocity refers to the speed at which a drum head is hit, a string is plucked or key is struck, etc. The higher the velocity you use to perform one of these actions, the bolder the resulting sound will be. This doesn’t just mean that the sound will be louder; it will also change the character of the sound.
Waves virtual piano, Grand Rhapsody, sampled on the Fazioli F228 from London’s Metropolis Studios, allows you control of a velocity sensitivity curve knob. With this knob set to its minimum value, Grand Rhapsody will produce a soft tone when fed a moderate velocity value, and a more aggressive tone when the knob is turned up.
This virtual piano calls on samples from an extensive library of sounds based on the parameters that you set within its interface. It will play back entirely different samples based on the input velocity. For example, at lower velocities, the sound of the piano strings will be quieter, making the pedal noise more apparent.
The following audio example contains a staccato chord progression that I created using Grand Rhapsody. The first half of the audio example doesn’t make use of different velocities, while the second half does. Musically, the first half of the audio file doesn’t seem to work. Without changing anything except for velocity values, the second half sounds perfectly usable.
You can take advantage of velocity using multi-sampled virtual instruments in your own songs by either playing dynamically on a keyboard or by adjusting the velocity level of individual MIDI notes within your DAW.
Alternatively, you can map the velocity curve in Grand Rhapsody to a MIDI controller’s knob or slider and perform changes in velocity; this is a great way to improve a MIDI performance after you’ve recorded it. I’m not the greatest pianist on earth, so being able to selectively focus on velocity changes can bring an incredible amount of life to my compositions.
If you’re using Ableton, there’s a MIDI effect called Velocity that allows you to randomize velocity values. By placing it on a MIDI track, it allows you to create subtle random velocity variations, similar to those present in a live piano recording. This is a go-to trick I use when using multi-sampled instruments.
The template also featured sub-groups for instruments, drums and vocals. That allowed all of those significant elements to be grouped on adjacent faders, making balancing easier.
Listen to the difference velocity makes in a simple arrangement using Grand Rhapsody, Bass Fingers (Waves’ virtual bass guitar) and some drums. The first half of the following audio example doesn’t make adequate use of velocity, but the second half does. You’ll notice that the second half feels much groovier due to the changes in velocity.
2. Vary Your Articulations
Articulation refers to how a musical note is played. More specifically, a sound’s attack, decay, sustain and release (ADSR), along with its timbre, dynamics, and pitch. A musician playing a song from sheet music has some leeway when it comes to how they choose to articulate the arrangement, which also aligns with their interpretation of it.
Bass Fingers provides you with a healthy amount of articulation control. The virtual instrument allows you to play individual notes and chords in the same way a skilled bassist would play them by moving Bass Fingers’ hand position up and down the fretboard. This can add a lot of variety to a stagnant bass track and help to liven it up.
Keyswitches are features that are easy to overlook, but are essential for making Bass Fingers sound real. They provide you with fast access to different articulations and samples.
Articulations change fret position, apply a variety of note modifiers, and affect legato type. Selecting the right legato type will allow you to perform hammer-ons and pull-offs, or avoid them altogether.
Samples allow you to play back unique recordings like dead notes, hand mutes, slides and FX. You can bind the articulations and samples you want to use to a range of keys on your keyboard using the keyswitch editor in Bass Fingers. This makes using these features possible during live performances.
For me, keyswitches are a little overwhelming when I’m initially writing my basslines. Unless you grew up playing piano, you’re probably in the same boat. Instead of neglecting this powerful feature, I like to circle back to it after I’ve written my rough bassline ideas.
Find segments within your song where you can use different articulations. This may be as simple as changing the articulation of your bassline between your intro, verse, chorus and bridge. You don’t need to go overboard with different articulations; even small changes in articulation will be enough to hold the listener’s interest.
Sprinkle FX into your bassline like harmonic strums, four-finger strums, hand scratches, squeaks and fret movement. These are all sounds that Bass Fingers gives you access to that can help create the illusion that your bassline was recorded live. It’s the subtleties and imperfections like this that are the difference between a virtual instrument that sounds programmed versus one that sounds real.
3. Use Modulation to Make Synthetic Sounds More Organic
Modulation allows you to apply wavering effects to various elements of a sound, and can often add life to virtual instrument patches. Modulation is applied by setting a center value for a parameter and automating its movement between values above and below the center value. The degree to which the setting modulates is usually controlled using a depth knob.
Waves’ Electric 88 Piano provides you with depth control over its tremolo (volume modulation), pan position, phaser and chorus. Making pad sounds that warble and evolve is something that this piano is perfectly equipped to do.
Film composers often make great use of modulation in their scores. The following track “Jay” from the It Follows soundtrack is incredibly simple, but the tremolo applied to the sustained notes creates a vibe that really helps to set the mood.
If the virtual instrument you’re using doesn’t have a dedicated modulation section, you can use a modulation plugin like MondoMod to create movement. MondoMod allows you to apply amplitude modulation (tremolo), frequency modulation (vibrato), panning modulation, and chorus effects to any sound source. This is an essential modulation tool that can be applied to all your virtual instruments.
Experiment using subtle forms of modulation in your songs to make simple arrangements more interesting, and synthetic sounds more organic. Add a tremolo onto an electric piano patch to make it sound like a vintage suitcase piano, or put a chorus onto your synthesizer to give it some organic movement. The options are endless. These small tweaks can sometimes be the difference between a good and great sounding composition.
4. Re-Amp Your Virtual Instruments
Re-amping a sound involves playing it out of an amplifier and recording it back into your DAW using a microphone. This is typically done using a guitar amp, but you can use a studio monitor as an alternative.
When the sound produced by the amp interacts with the room the amp is in, it takes on some of the room’s characteristics, which are then picked up by the mic. The sound will also take on some of the qualities of the amp and microphone as well. These real-world physical wave interactions can provide the lifelike ingredient missing in the virtual instrument. They’ll also provide the feeling that the sound was “recorded.”
A dynamic microphone like a Shure SM57 is a good, affordable option for this application. The high sound pressure levels produced by the amplifier will be enough for this dynamic microphone to provide you with a clean signal free of excess noise.
When it comes to placing the microphone in front of the amp, there are plenty of different on-axis and off-axis positions you can try, but the optimal distance and angle can be found most easily using your ears. Put on a pair of headphones and audition the signal the microphone is picking up as you sweep it around the amp.
Waves GTR3 Amps will pull through tremendously if you don’t have a real amplifier. Even if you do have an amp, it will provide you with an assortment of amp tonal options. Place one of these amps on the signal running out of your studio monitors and record the sound being produced back into your DAW.
Try re-amping your virtual instruments in interesting locations like a warehouse, gymnasium or forest. The space you’re in plays a big part in the sound your microphone picks up, so you can get creative with it.
5. Use Spatial FX to Complete the Illusion
Delay and reverb are two fundamental spatial FX that I use in every song. Both of these FX contribute to the perception of the environment that your virtual instruments live within. You can use them to apply a final polish to your virtual instruments, and solidify the illusion that your virtual instruments are real.
Spatial FX are especially effective if you use them to glue together live recorded instruments and virtual instruments. If you can create a shared sense of space, it will be much easier for your listeners to believe that the virtual piano you’re using is just as real as the drums, guitars, and bass that you recorded live. It’s a lot harder to spot a duck in a flock of seagulls than it is by itself.
Instead of applying delay and reverb at a track level, opt to use these FX on your instrument bus, or on an aux track that all your main instruments are sending signal to. Even applying compression and saturation to a buss containing a mixture of real and virtual instruments can help glue them together.
Using a delay like the Waves H-Delay on its own can create a sense of space without overpowering your instruments, especially if you filter the delayed signal; this will push the wet signal behind the dry signal on the Z-axis of your mix. Reach for a delay if you want to keep your instrument group upfront in the mix and present.
Reverb plugins will give you a lot of control over the physical characteristics of the room your instruments are perceived within. Whether you use a chamber reverb like Abbey Road Chambers for a hip-hop mix or a plate reverb like Abbey Road Plates for a pop mix, make sure that you don’t drown out the qualities of the original instruments. In this situation, a little bit of reverb is all that’s needed to create the illusion of a shared space.
The quality of virtual instruments has come so far that you should be able to trick even the most trained sets of ears into thinking that your virtual instruments are real, using a few of the tricks discussed. Get your initial ideas out using virtual instrument presets and then dial them in one pass at a time until you’re satisfied with the results.
Want more on virtual instruments? Learn how to play realistic basslines on keyboards here.
Want to get more tips straight to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter here.